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Everything I’ve Learned About Startups in Two Words: “Nothing More”

The Philosophy and Story Behind Nothing More, LLC

It was the winter of 2007. I had just graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in physics. That most prestigious of all worthless degrees that both proves you’re smart enough to get a degree in physics yet dumb enough to only get a degree in physics. It took me six years, two changes in major, and one hell of a curve, but I did it — I confirmed I did not want to be a physicist. After a few half-hearted attempts to find “physics jobs”, I landed a sales gig with Apple to pay the bills while I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I had always been interested in technology and personal electronics. I grew up around computers when they were little more than novelties. I had always been a PC guy, but around 2003 I went from despising Apple to becoming obsessed with them. They represented the perfect marriage of form, function, and pretentiousness. I was confident they would become wildly successful again and I became a wide-eyed evangelist. I even purchased $3000 worth of Apple stock the day before the iPhone was announced. Pretty savvy, eh?

Well, it would have been (to the tune of $70k or so, and counting) had I not promptly sold it two days later after losing my nerve. To some, this would seem like a mistake. But in reality — yeah, no, they’re right; it was a huge mistake.

Mistakes hurt. Mistakes are embarrassing. Mistakes cost you time, money, effort, credibility, and more. Yet mistakes are inevitable. Mistakes are important; even valuable at times. Mistakes are how you learn. Well, they’re how I learn anyway.

So what did I learn?

Risk only what you’re willing to lose.

Nothing more.

You can hardly be expected to make rational choices when you’re facing the anxiety of losing that which you cannot afford to lose. It’s why people often take venture capital for the wrong reasons, allow the quality of their products and services to suffer for short term gains, and regularly undervalue themselves and their creations. If you can walk away with confidence, you’re more likely to be properly compensated.

While I enjoyed working for Apple, I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in retail for the rest of my life. My brother (who has made somewhat of a name for himself in the programming world) suggested I check out a little known language called Ruby.

I had taken enough computer science classes in college to get a minor (for what it’s worth), but hadn’t really grasped what it meant to build a fully functional application of any kind. With Ruby, specifically Ruby on Rails, programming finally clicked for me. I started picking up contracting opportunities as soon as I was able. Before long, I left Apple to focus on a freelancing career. Like many others at the time, I had my sights set on launching a startup.

Over the next few years I learned a lot about how to be a successful freelance developer while working on my own ideas. Many of these ideas were viable, but none of them became a runaway success. Like countless other engineers, I committed the fatal mistake of assuming that the value of an idea is primarily a function of its construction. I would spend hours agonizing over a product’s implementation details, making design tweaks, adding functionality, and so on, all without having spent a modicum of time finding out if anyone actually wanted it.

Ironically, my most successful product happened to be the one I put the least amount of time into. Around 2010, Twitter was a particular fascination of mine (it being the most successful Rails app at the time) and its 3rd party ecosystem was vibrant and thriving. As I grew my social media footprint I became particularly interested in understanding more about my followers. I had noticed it wasn’t easy to find out when people stopped following me and whipped up a quick Rails app to notify me whenever they did.

The basic implementation took no more than a few hours, most of which was spent designing the homepage. As usual, my plan was to continue tinkering with it for a few weeks or so before growing bored and moving onto my next Big Idea™. I would have done just that had I not mistakenly tweeted out a link to it on my main account.

The link went viral and within a few hours the app had shot up to thousands of users. As expected, my shabby implementation ran into problems immediately and I spent the next 3 days frantically working to keep the system running as users continued to flood in. Yet, despite all of its issues, it went on to service hundreds of thousands of users over the next couple years including the likes of Shaquille O’neal, Britney Spears, and the Prime Minister of Australia.

At one point I was offered $5k by an outfit in Silicon Valley, which I turned down not out of hubris but of the shame of them seeing how poorly it had been written. I made every mistake in the book and the app was broken more often than it was working, but it remains my biggest commercial success as a developer. The value wasn’t in the implementation (which could easily be rewritten) or in its novelty (there were plenty of others), but in the discovery and capitalization of the opportunity.

So what did I learn?

Build just enough to solve the problem.

Nothing more.

Solving the problem is less important than finding the problem. Find the problem quickly testing as many small and targeted solutions as necessary. Once the core problem has accurately identified, the implementation can be solidified and improved upon. Until then, all the work you do could potentially be for nothing.

Nowhere is this more evidenced than in the story of Twitter itself. Twitter’s origin (originally called Twttr) was as a hack day project at the podcasting company Odeo (back when “podcasting” was a buzzword) spearheaded by Jack Dorsey and written in Ruby on Rails by Florian Weber. Rails had become the hot new web framework that lent itself particularly well to rapid-prototyping.

Not in their wildest dreams did they imagine how big Twitter would end up becoming, yet had it been any larger in scope it likely never would have seen the light of day. It didn’t matter that the database was architected poorly or that Rails wasn’t built for the kind of scale Twitter would need because it could all be rewritten (and was). What mattered is that the opportunity was found in the first place and moved on before anyone else could react.

One of the unfortunate realities of being a software developer is navigating through the endless churn of the tools, languages, platforms, and patterns that fall in and out of fashion. Unlike other professions, we software engineers can easily invent and reinvent (and reinvent (and reinvent…)) the very tools we use on a daily basis. This provides us with great flexibility, but it also gives us the illusion of productivity. We end up overestimating the power of tools and underestimating the complexity of problem solving.

One of my startup efforts involved building a web application for non-profit associations to manage their members. I had partnered with two business acquaintances I had met through my contracting efforts who shared my enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism. But being the sole developer on the project, the forward progress rested entirely on me. None of us were putting our full time into the effort and there was very little urgency (on my part especially) to ship, but nonetheless I was able to make significant progress in a short amount of time (thanks Rails team! 🙏). But then it happened..

JavaScript started to explode in popularity, and I like many others responded by switching over to building single page apps. Drunk with the power each new tool and framework promised, I decided the app needed to be rewritten; there just wasn’t any way around it. How could we expect to be successful if we expected our users to wait a couple seconds to perform an action?

Before I realized what had happened, my focus shifted to the technology and away from the people we were supposed to be solving problems for. Our effort ended up dissipating and shortly after I abandoned up my entrepreneurial efforts to chase contracting dollars at a price I couldn’t refuse.

So what did I learn?

The goal is to improve the lives of others.

Nothing more.

Don’t forget why you’re building a startup in the first place. If you’re doing it so you can play with cool technology, craft something beautiful and/or sophisticated, or become rich and/or famous, it’s likely going to fail. There should only be one reason you‘re building a startup, and that is to improve other people’s lives. The success you enjoy as an entrepreneur is directly proportional to the amount to which you have improved other people’s lives. When your customers gives you their hard earned money, they’re giving you a literal slice of their life as an acknowledgement that you have improved it.

Itis easy to fall pray to the hype and fashion that’s so prevalent in tech. In an industry where imposter syndrome is epidemic and ageism a fact of life, the fear of being left behind or exposed as a washed-up hack soon outweighs the motivation to provide the best solution for the customer. As the Red Queen told Alice, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”.

The effects of this hyper-pseudo-innovation are quite damaging to the industry as a whole. Engineers tend to optimize for their own marketability, knowing full well their best chance at a pay increase is to jump to another company. As such, they will typically recommend full-rewrites of their company’s codebase in whatever the trendiest engineers are using under the guise of improving maintainability, scalability, and reliability, but actually due to the fear of becoming irrelevant.

Because engineers are typically the arbiters of the interview process, they perpetuate this over-reliance on fashionable technology by scoffing at potential hires if they haven’t kept up to date on the latest trends coming out of the hippest software companies and developers. Technical interviews are more a process of hazing than an actual vetting of true engineering ability, and often times the requirements for specific expertise in trendy technologies is a way to mask more taboo prejudices against potential candidates.

I’ve watched multi-million dollar projects hit the cutting room floor because of incessant over-engineering and rampant not-invented-here syndrome. I’ve tossed countless projects into the wastebin on the false belief that their underlying technology was outdated and unfit for primetime. Enough is enough.

So what did I learn?

Use only the tools you need and understand.

Nothing more.

They say that earning any amount over $70k per year gives you diminishing returns in terms of happiness, and I happen to agree with that assessment. As my annual income ticked steadily upward over the past ten years, my worldview started to become increasingly distorted. Like a frog being brought to a slow boil, the visceral thrill of being an entrepreneur was gradually replaced with the shallow pride of material wealth.

I dedicated less and less time to my startup efforts and more and more time on my contracting opportunities. My wife and I had our first baby, moved out of our duplex into a trendy South Minneapolis neighborhood, and before I had a chance to realize it I found myself stuck on the treadmill of success, unable to break free. For the first time since leaving Apple in 2007, I took a full time software development job.

Although I had a salary well above the industry average, I will never forget the feeling of complete and utter defeat that crept over me like winter chill as I sat in my first meeting to do “poker planning” for an internal project I knew was doomed for failure. I was wearing golden handcuffs, and worse, I had willingly put them on myself.

I tried to make the best of it, telling myself this was a simply a short detour on the way to entrepreneurial success. I made an effort to befriend as many people as I could to build out my network which had languished over the previous three years while I worked a lucrative full-time contract. Although I’m grateful to have met so many incredible people, you can only live a lie for so long before it starts to eat away at your psyche.

As a contractor/entrepreneur I was very used to being involved with every aspect of the business lifecycle. As a full time employee, my role was narrowed to that of a front-end web developer. I felt lobotomized and grew increasingly frustrated with the political, procedural, and cultural challenges that are endemic to most companies. I watched helplessly as projects languished, money was wasted, resources reshuffled, and principles disintegrated.

My professional malaise bled over into my personal life and I became increasingly detached from my friends and family. I began to indulge in risky recreation and superficial materialism in an effort to reclaim a sense of independence and excitement in my life. Nihilism began to dig its sinister claws into me as I watched my marriage and close friendships disintegrate before my disinterested eyes.

Luckily, I was able to recognize the gravity of the situation before my entire life collapsed. In the fall of 2016, I made the decision to leave full time work and strike off on my own again, come what may. It became clear to me that I had been driven primarily by fear when I chose to become a full time employee. A new baby, an expensive mortgage, and my wife’s transition to homemaker scared the hell out of me. Visions of foreclosure and divorce tormented me in my quietest moments, and I acted in accordance to that torment.

Now that I’m back on my own, my life has dramatically improved. The dark clouds have been lifted and the future looks bright.

So what did I learn?

Money is a means to an end.

Nothing more.

We are defined by our mistakes as much as we are our successes; perhaps even more so. And not just by our having made them, but how we learn from them. In order to learn from them, we must remain humble. It’s important that we not only learn from them, but also tell others about them so that they might be able to avoid making them too. While it can feel self-defeating to admit our failures, there is no greater expression of strength and wisdom than to state publicly the ways in which we let ourselves an others down.

Three months ago I started a company with a fellow co-worker of mine who, ten years my junior, has the same wide-eyed enthusiasm for the thrill of exploration, creation, and self-determination that I did at his age. Most of his mistakes are still ahead of him, and so he provides the hope, wonder, and optimism—the life blood of entrepreneurialism. My mistakes provide the pragmatism and humility that can stack the deck in our favor.

We decided early on that we wanted our company to not only be a manifestation of our individual experiences and shared philosophies, but an actual declaration of them; a reminder to remain true to our fundamental principles through every decision, every victory, and every failure. When the uncertainty and fear of the future bear down on us, the guilt and nostalgia of the past twist our stomachs, and the chaos of the present clouds our vision, we have in our company name a north star to help guide us on our journey:

Nothing More, LLC



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